I've been reading Walter Isaacson's amazing biography on Benjamin Franklin and there is so much people can learn about learning when looking at this larger-than-life Founder. I'm a big nerd when it comes to the founding generation, mostly because everything you ever need to learn about living a full, thoughtful, and connected life you can learn from studying the likes of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, and Washington. They are all so different but all tend to share this common creed about bettering one's self as a means of improving society as a whole. They were the ultimate in self-paced, intrinsic learning and when you look at the ideal student profile that high schools are trying to produce through public education you are essentially reading descriptions of Jefferson or Franklin.
There's a passage where a relatively young Franklin is defending his unique perspectives on religion and orthodoxy to his family back in Boston and he outlines a model of thinking that should be the end result of any student in a high school:
Franklin's freethinking unnerved his family. When his parents wrote of their concern over his "erroneous opinions," Franklin replied with a letter that spelled out his religious philosophy, based on tolerance and utility, that would last his life. It would be vain, he wrote, for any person to insist that "all doctrines he holds are true and all he rejects are false." The same could be said of the opinions of different religions as well. They should be evaluated, the young pragmatist said, by their utility: "I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded that he holds none that are dangerous, which I hope is the case with me." He had little use for the doctrinal distinctions his mother worried about. "I think vital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtue. And the Scripture assures me that at the last day we shall not be examined by what we thought, but what we did... that we did good to our fellow creatures. See Matth 26." His parents, a bit more versed in the Scriptures, probably caught that he meant Matthew 25. They did, nonetheless, eventually stop worrying about his heresies.Franklin is concerned with the doctrines of religion, but in society there are a myriad of ways in which students get locked into ideological rigid ways of thinking that tend to be self-serving and too often lead to some form of intolerance. As someone who teaches a Government and Politics class, I can say that it takes a great deal of effort to get students to see outside their own pre-packaged viewpoints. Judging ideas by their utility and tolerance is a great set of guiding principles to look toward when thinking of broad themes. This is especially true of an early American Studies class.